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Parting the Waters : She braved the English Channel and Bering Strait. Now Lynne Cox swims for a world without war.

October 17, 1994|SUSAN HOWLETT | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Lynne Cox begins her final miles of training in U.S. waters by facing the shore and crashing backward into the surf. She is going against the current again, and she does it with a childlike grin visible from across the sand.

The regulars watching her from the Seal Beach Pier wave at the swimmer who, in 22 years of setting international endurance records, has become something of a hometown hero in neighboring Los Alamitos.

At 15, she shattered the women's and men's world records for swimming the English Channel. She went on to become the only person to brave 40-degree water and swim Russia's Bering Strait, and she wrote history by stroking across the Beagle Channel between Argentina and Chile, the Spree River between former East and West Berlin, the shark-infested waters of the Cape of Good Hope, and Siberia's Lake Baikal--the world's deepest and coldest freshwater lake.

Today, Cox and her half a dozen crew members are in Israel, where, after a six-year quest, she is scheduled to attempt a 14-mile crossing of the Gulf of Aqaba, a symbolic "peace swim" in waters linking Israel, Egypt and Jordan.

"I don't know what it's going to take to get into Jordanian waters," she says after ripping off blue goggles worn for the three-mile training swim. "It always comes down to the last minute. . . .

"But after all of the work, it's always great to finally get into the water. It's like being an artist. You've put out all the paint, and you've gotten everything ready, and you can finally pick up the brush."

Quietly articulate, Cox comes off as an interesting blend of political intellect and athletic ability.

She has thrown out the many medals and trophies collected over years of competitive swimming. She still lives with her parents, teaches swimming, lectures and does some writing. She is not the kind of American athlete who shills for running shoes or breakfast cereal. All she wants, she says with a bashful smile, is a world without war.

On this swim, she sees a special irony in the fact that she will be stroking all 14 miles of the two-day effort against the current.

"They asked me if I wanted to change my course and swim the other way," says Cox, 37, who scheduled the event to celebrate the Camp David accords and the ongoing peace effort between Jordan and Israel.

"But against the current really describes the whole thing," she says, "and the whole peace process."

*

Just three years after Albert Cox, a radiologist, and his wife, Estelle, an artist, moved Lynne and her swimming siblings to Southern California from New Hampshire in 1970, she made her mark by swimming the English Channel.

"My parents were a stable influence of encouragement," says Cox, whose brother David, 39, runs a recreation department. Sister Laura, 35, is a geneticist who coaches swimming, and Ruth, 32, coaches water polo and teaches.

"I remember that they used to give us swimming lessons in the bathtub when we were really little," she says. "We started competing (in New Hampshire), but all of the good coaches were in California, so they moved us out here."

It was after the English Channel swim that Cox became intensely interested in the world around her. By her late teens, she was focusing on global peace efforts, not trophies and medals.

"I don't even remember exactly why I threw (the trophies) out," she says. "We used to have them displayed all over the place, but I was done with that. They went into a box, and then in the trash. I don't swim for that anymore."

As a history major at UC Santa Barbara, she learned about the give-and-take in attaining and maintaining peace.

"It's the idea that a little compromise on both sides can build a bridge, and by allowing me to swim, they're all doing that," she says of her various host countries. "It takes a good many years to build a bridge and just seconds to blow it up."

Her parents find it difficult to understand her drive and motivation. They just watch in awe as she pieces together each history-making swim, they say, and then fret about her. The Gulf of Aqaba swim is particularly worrisome, given Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein's latest military maneuvering and the mobilization of U.S. troops to Kuwait.

"We worry about her safety because it's a very volatile part of the world today, with a lot of out-of-control people," her father says. "But we just keep our fingers crossed and hope everything goes smoothly."

Cox's parents have other concerns, including their daughter's personal and financial future. Although she works once a week at Beach Physical Therapy in Seal Beach, delivers lectures to corporate executives, gives swimming lessons and picks up some free-lance writing assignments, her income is modest.

"It's hard for us to understand why she does this and why she keeps doing this," Albert Cox says. "Lynne is going to do what she feels she has to do. We don't push her; we just assist her."

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